Here be Dragons: Mindfully changing negative creative habits

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I had lots of fun drawing my dragon – why not have a go yourself – and post them in the comments below?

So here we are in a new year. And as in other years, we no doubt have some positive intentions and resolutions about our lives and about our creative lives in particular. Perhaps we want to paint more, or learn to dance, or get back to that novel in the drawer, and yet this is how we started last year, and nothing really happened, nothing really changed. And because it didn’t happen last year, we perhaps doubt our capacity to do it this year too, so it can be that even at this early stage we’re mentally and emotionally backing off from our resolutions and doubting our capacity for change. And even when we do follow through – the same old negative thoughts and habits can seem to follow us.

 

Does this sound familiar? It’s a pattern I’ve encountered often in the lives of the people I work with – and in my own life too. And it’s been my experience that it’s the mental habits and thought patterns we hold around our creating that most often scupper these new year resolutions. In particular there are three patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that undermine good intentions most often, so let’s take a mindful look at them, and to make it a little easier to get some perspective (and because it makes it more fun) – I’m going to name these three patterns our inner dragons.

In days gone by, they used to mark the more treacherous places on maps with the warning – Here be dragons. And on the map of our individual creative worlds, there are also those places that are treacherous to enter, the places we get lost, or frightened or confused. Here indeed there are dragons, dragons of the mind; habits of thinking and behaving that subtly and sometimes with a roar and a burst of flame – affect our relationship to creativity and our capacity to act on our good intentions and resolutions. These are the habits that make us retreat when we want to advance.

Of course, dragons breed more dragons. One negative thought pattern leads to another and then another. And then there’s suddenly a whole stampede of dragons. So let me introduce you to three of the most common dragon species – and make some mindfulness based suggestions about how to deal with them so they stop breeding.

Dragon 1: I’m useless, bad and untalented.

By far the most common dragon is self criticism. Its a big, ugly beast and its frightening roar goes something like this: “Your last story-poem-painting-drawing was useless and this will be too. You’re not getting any better despite all these classes. You’re going to fail. You’ve got no talent.” We battle on for a while, but retreat is usually the final response to this kind of dragon. We stop creating. We make excuses for not starting, or we always start but don’t let ourselves finish.

If this is your dragon, then the first thing you need to do is to recognise it for what it is. Try staying mindful when you’re creating, checking-in regularly and bringing a little awareness and attention to the thought patterns that arise whilst you create. Try writing them down. Write down every single negative thought about your creative ability for a whole week. Write the specific words/criticisms as you hear them in your head. Then read them back to yourself. It’s pretty scary, isn’t it? And it’s likely you’re dueling with this particular beast all the time. However now you know the exact words the dragon uses – you’re going to be mindful when they crop up again. You’ll see them for what they are – just the dragon – your particular habit of thinking about yourself and your creating. And these thoughts are no more true about you, than a thought in your head that might say – “I’m a purple elephant!” for example. And you certainly wouldn’t believe that.

You can break these negative thought habits with mindfulness. When you mindfully notice one of these thoughts popping up, stop what you’re doing for a moment and bring your attention to the in and out of your breath and the feelings and sensations in your hands. Focus with real curiosity on exactly how it feels to breathe and the sensations in fingers and palms. By doing this you interrupt the chain of thought and get yourself out of your thinking-criticising mind. Start again after a few moments but keep using this mindful interrupter as you create. Over time you should find that the thoughts are less insistent and it’s much easier to just see them for what they are and let them go. (I do this especially when I’m life-drawing.)

Dragon 2: I shouldn’t be wasting time.

This is a particularly wily dragon, and it’s surprised me how common a scaremonger it is for the people I’ve worked with. It seems that feeling entitled to be creative, entitled to time for oneself, entitled to say no to all the other important people and things in life is actually quite hard. This dragon sits in the path before you looking put-upon and hard done by. It doesn’t so much roar as insinuate. “Drawing is just self-indulgent. Should you really be putting so much time into writing, when you’ve hardly spent time with your partner, children, garden – all week? This is just a little hobby, it’s not important, there are much more important things – getting on at work, doing up the house, sorting out your life for godsake! What makes you so special that you have to have ‘me-time’ every weekend?” The response to this dragon is often guilt, guilt for making creative time and neglecting other people or IMPORTANT tasks. Guilt and resentment can develop too because we’re not creating, putting something else first. Listening to this dragon can also create a sense of impoverishment because we’re not doing what nurtures, what’s necessary for our happiness, even if we don’t understand why it is necessary.

With this dragon too we use mindfulness to take a pause whenever we notice it roaring. We take time to notice if we’re feeling guilty, resentful or impoverished in relation to our creativity, and we start to pay attention to any specific voices or words that go with it. Often this dragon is a symptom of not feeling we deserve other things – time-off, happiness, fulfillment, creative expression – a long line of dragons that dwindle off into the depths of our pasts. It’s important to recognise that we have busy lives and that we all make sacrifices and compromises in order to find some kind of life/work balance, but despite this, we are all entitled to do what brings us joy and fulfillment, and often it’s our habits of thinking that stop us from making time for these.

So we don’t so much need a weapon as a healing spell with this dragon – that spell, a good deal of kindness to ourselves. By meeting this dragon with kindness, we find that it can be negotiated with. We can build a relationship with it, if we’re willing to confront our own sense of lack of entitlement. So when this inner voice roars, instead of doing battle with it, be gentle. Put a hand on your chest, or anywhere you feel tension, and hold a good intention for yourself. Wish yourself the time and peace to create. Wish yourself a sense of freedom and creativity in life. Or send yourself any other good wishes around creativity and priorities that feel meaningful to you. You could try writing these out as affirmations too.

You can even turn this dragon into a friend, the defender of your time to create – because, let me tell you, YOU ARE ENTITLED! Thank it for pointing out the importance of all those other things, then tell it, with as much conviction as you can, that you are important too. Then let it be your negotiator, take a little of its power and utilise it – “Okay I’ll help you with that, but on Saturday morning I’m taking 2 hours to stick things in my art-journal!” Value your creating territory and defend it, not to the expense of everything else in your life, but to enhance what’s already there.

Dragon 3: It’s got to be perfect.

This is the most glorious creature you’ll ever have seen. It stands on your creative path, glinting in a magical light, its scales are pure white, its wings silver, its eyes shade from violet to gold, it takes your breath away. Your writing or drawing or photography is never, never, going to be as beautiful, as perfect, as totally compelling as the monster before you. Might as well turn back now. This dragon represents every hope, ambition and need to be brilliant you’ve ever had, all wrapped up as perfectionism. It often hangs out with the I’m useless and untalented dragon too. So beware.

Dragon 3 can put you off creating for days, weeks, years, a whole lifetime. You start a poem, you read the first few lines, you delete the whole document and start again. You begin a drawing, the marks frustrate you, they seem stiff and lifeless, and so does the next one, and the next, so gradually you give up drawing. However hard you try this dragon shadows you, so that even when you actually finish something you’re dissatisfied with it, because it isn’t as good as it was in your head. And there’s no point doing it if you can’t do it right – right?

Wrong. This is a purely mythical beast – there is no such thing as perfect – even finished Pulitzer prize winning plays or acclaimed paintings aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t perfect. Creators aren’t perfect. Your writing or drawing or photographing might be funny, strange, unique, clever, poignant, emotive, insightful, inspiring, quirky, shadowy, precise, luminous – but it’s still never going to be as perfect as the dragon on the path because that dragon isn’t real, it doesn’t actually exist.

So just begin and don’t let false ideas of perfection put you off. Again bring mindfulness to the process, notice the feeling of tension and constraint that having this particular dragon at your shoulder gives you. Notice your tentativeness, a fear of getting it wrong. Notice yourself comparing. All these are totally ineffective weapons. Put them down. All you need do with this beast is ignore it. Mindfully notice its voice is there, focus on where you feel them as a response in your body, rather than the actual words in your head, and then let them go. Do not let this dragon eyeball you. Know that shimmering mirage of perfectionist thoughts for what it is – total fiction.

Of course we can all get better at what we do, creating is a never ending journey of learning, but don’t let the I’m useless, I’m wasting my time and the It has to be perfect dragons put you off making the journey. Leave them where they’re supposed to be, in fantasy, a myth, walk past and don’t look back. Let yourself experiment, create utter chaos, create glorious mistakes, create weird digressions and strange explorations, be messy and sloppy, and passionate and fierce. And just go enjoy it! Happy New Year.

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